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Cuban Connection at Ottawa Chamberfest (review)

Roman Borys (cello), Roberto Occhipinti (bass) and Phil Dwyer (soprano sax) were in constant musical communication at the Cuban Connection concert. ©Brett Delmage, 2012

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Cuban Connection
Ottawa Chamberfest
Saturday, July 28, 2012
St. Brigid's Centre for the Arts and Humanities

It's not unusual – and it hasn't been since Charlie Parker – to include strings in a jazz concert. But what's less usual is to have those string players come from an unabashedly classical context, and to celebrate those classical influences in a jazz context, especially a Latin jazz context.

And it's to the credit of the classical and the jazz musicians that they produced a cohesive and enjoyable concert from this very diverse jazz/classical repertoire.

For the last decade, the members of the chamber ensemble The Gryphon Trio (Annalee Patipatanakoon on violin, Roman Borys on cello, and Jamie Parker on piano) have played occasional gigs at Toronto's Lula Lounge together with several notable Canadian jazz musicians: pianist Hilario Duràn, bassist Roberto Occhipinti, saxophonist Phil Dwyer, and drummer Mark Kelso.

The initial connection was through Occhipinti, who has played in several classical orchestras and produced an album for the trio, and he brought in Duràn, who added even more of a Cuban/Latin sound.

The material in Saturday's two sets was mostly from previous Lula Lounge appearances, although the line-up was slightly expanded with an extra viola player and Drew Jurecka on violin. They opened with a piece by Occhipinti: “Umbria”, dedicated to a “fallen hero” – Keith Jarrett after his notorious appearance at the 2007 Umbria Jazz Festival. It was a wistful dance, where the strings alternated with Dwyer's soprano sax and Duràn's rippling piano.

The concert featured several pieces inspired by classical works, two by Schubert's Trout Quartet (Dwyer's “Speckled Trout” and Duran's “Trout Variations”). Dwyer's piece emphasized the melody line on soprano sax, with contributions on bass and strings. Duran's piece, on the other hand, started with a more traditional classical string quartet opening (with no saxophone), and then moved to a Latin flavour, with prominent piano lines, almost in a Jellyroll Morton style.

Occhipinti started the second set with a piece he wrote inspired by Beethoven's Opus 132 (slow movement), especially composed for this concert because the Chamberfest was featuring the complete Beethoven string quartets this year. It was Beethoven interpreted in the light of John Coltrane's Crescent, he said. It started slowly with a formal string section playing what sounded much like a waltz, but when Dwyer entered on tenor sax, the mood became much more insistent and intense, with piano, drums, sax, and strings combining to produce a strong, multi-layered soundscape with an undercurrent of melancholy, and ending up in a very different place than its classical inspiration.

A particular highlight were the last two pieces in the first set, well-known from their renditions by the Pat Metheny Group. Here, the strings and Dwyer's tenor sax replaced Metheny's guitar and Lyle Mays' synthesizer for an all acoustic-version of Mays' “Are You Going with Me?”, producing long, evocative lines and a deep resonant tone. In Metheny's “Minuano”, Kelso's rustling drums and cymbals provided important texture over which the strings soared and Parker's piano and Occhipinti's bass presented the formal patterns underneath the melody. But the important part was how the melody interacted with the Latin rhythms underneath, and how the strings accurately evoked Metheny's melodies while adding a different, more tactile approach. The audience bid farewell to both these pieces with loud and highly appreciative applause.

In all these pieces, Duràn was hidden at the back and playing a primarily supporting role on piano or keyboards. But his time came at the end of the second set with the series of several Cuban-influenced songs which closed out the concert: a new piece by Occhipinti called “Que Bola”, and Duràn's own “Esto Si Tiene”, “Havana City”, and the closing piece “Lada 78”. The jazz influences came to the fore, as Occhipinti, Dwyer, and Duràn combined to add a strong Latin vibe. The strings were not forgotten, however; Duràn rearranged “Havana City” (a tribute to his hometown) to add the strings, and they alternated with Dwyer's tenor in playing the ballad's melody.

Duràn introduced “Lada 78” with the incident which inspired it: how he and his daughter were almost killed when their Lada car started going backwards on a hill as he was taking it in to be repaired (luckily, he managed to steer it to and stop it on the edge of the road). The song itself was much happier, with a propulsive beat on piano, bass, and drums, it also featured considerable exploration by both the strings, in particular some exuberant playing by Drew Jurecka on violin. Dwyer's tenor and Duràn's piano were equally vivid, and the whole piece ended with an intense flourish.

It's always a risk putting together two musical traditions, and the Chamberfest is to be commended for this initiative. On the whole the audience appeared to enjoy the concert, with a partial standing ovation at the end, and relatively few people leaving at intermission despite the late hour. I found, though, that the most successful pieces were the jazz ones where the strings worked in that tradition, as opposed to the classically-influenced ones – which may have required more of a listening adjustment by the core Chamberfest audience. If this had been at the Jazz Festival, I suspect the response would have been even more enthusiastic.

    – Alayne McGregor

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All images ©Brett Delmage, 2012
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